Top Drawer declared them national champions three times in the past six years. The Cardinals have captured nine New England titles since 2006. In 2019 – often playing much larger schools -- they finished 19-0-0.
This fall, most opponents canceled or severely curtailed their seasons. Yet South Kent played 16 matches. They ended with a typical record: 13-0-3.
As always, the schedule included quality foes. Head coach Owen Finberg scoured the Northeast, replacing traditional rivals with schools he’d never faced – plus club and MLS Next academy sides.
At a time when students everywhere lost much, it was as close to “normal” as anyone could get.
When the New England Preparatory School Athletic Council announced last summer that they would not sponsor champions tournaments in any fall sport, its 120 member schools were on their own.
Many took a conservative approach. Teams would primarily train; they’d play at most one or two matches, late in the season.
South Kent had a different idea. The school enrolls 167 boys in grades 9 through post-grad, from 21 states and 22 countries. “Competition is part of our mission,” says Finberg, who was National Coach of the Year in 2015 (and doubles as athletic director). “That’s part of how we develop young men. The safety of the community is always at the forefront. But we felt there were ways to compete safely, and still accomplish our goals.”
As part of the administration’s COVID task force, Finberg helped develop a three-phase protocol. Stringent testing -- every athlete, once a week – was part of the plan. So was housing students by teams, rather than the usual method of mixing everyone together.
Assured that the school was doing all it could to minimize spread of the coronavirus, Finberg worked his contacts. He called coaches of club teams he’d played before in friendlies, and those in the new MLS Next league.
He booked matches with club opponents Boston Bolts, Oakwood, FC Westchester, New York Soccer Club and CT Rush, and schools in New York (Hoosac), New Hampshire (Black Rock High Mowing, which sponsors a residential academy team), and Pennsylvania (Kiski). The only familiar name from a traditional regular season was Avon Old Farms, late in the year.
The contests were a welcome diversion on campus. “We’re in a beautiful part of Connecticut. But we’re isolated,” Finberg notes. “So many things we’d usually do – taking students to movies, dances with girls’ schools – we couldn’t. Normal activities are huge for mental health. Training was normal, but we needed someone else to play against. We were fortunate we got those matches.”
His players’ competitive mentality was as strong as if they were meeting their usual foes. Finberg’s was, too. With no postseason tournaments on the line though, he gave younger players more of a chance than he sometimes might. Playing against U-19 club teams was excellent preparation for what’s ahead.
“The great thing about soccer is there are so many styles of play,” Finberg says. “This year we exposed our guys to a lot of that, and a lot of different talents. It was a rich experience.”
None of his athletes tested positive this fall. One was diagnosed with COVID just before Christmas break. All of Finberg’s athletes returned. They’re back on the field now, training together again.
Looking ahead to the fall, Finberg comes off a season his fellow prep coaches could only dream about. But a usual spring activity – recruiting – has taken on a different look. He’s spent more time watching videos and Zoom chatting with potential players. And with the NCAA pipeline backed up (some college seniors will remain on campus next fall, for a now-legal fifth year), he’s talking with his own current players who may be considering a post-grad prep school year of their own.
South Kent’s mission is to prepare young men to “succeed in college, and thrive as thoughtful and engaged citizens in a rapidly changing and intensely competitive world.” The school certainly adapted to rapid change this year. Intense competition then took care of itself.